Green Screen Cowboy: Directing SCI FI's 'Sanctuary'

Sanctuary Dir. Martin Wood Interview

As a director, whether you are shooting a feature film, TV show, or even a fast food commercial, it is up to you to help set the scene for your cast. For Martin Wood, resident director of the new upcoming SCI FI Channel series Sanctuary, that job is that much more challenging. Most of the show’s environments, along with an array of exotic, magical, and sometimes dangerous creatures (a.k.a. “abnormals”), are brought to life with green screen. On this particular morning, the director is his typically enthusiastic and animated self as he stands behind the camera on the show’s Vancouver set and works with actors Amanda Tapping and Robin Dunne to get them to imagine themselves in a very different place.

“The scene we’re working on at the moment is the introduction of the Sanctuary itself,” explains Wood, taking a breather in-between camera set-ups. “So this is the first time that the viewer – or at least those who haven’t watched the web series – is seeing the new Sanctuary as well as the lab where the abnormals are kept.

“There’s a certain way we’re doing this program in that there is a very distinct line of demarcation between the real world and our [Sanctuary] world, and we do that in a number of different ways. We do it by moving from practical filming and practical sets, where it looks like a police drama, into the scenes we’re shooting today where essentially our character of Will [Robin Dunne] has made the decision to jump into the Sanctuary and see what it’s all about. He’s been intrigued enough by Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping] that he decides to come and look at her world. When Will does that, the audience’s world shifts as does the look of the show, and we’re now into the virtual part of the program.

“So today is our first day on green screen. This part of the episode is all virtual, all generated by computer, and with that comes challenges for the actors as well as myself. When you’re shooting practically, you know what things looks like – there’s a wall behind you, a light over there, a door over here, those kinds of things. Now it becomes my job to actually describe that to them. So I have to say, ‘This is where you are, this is a picture or concept of where you are. You’re essentially traveling from here to here, and this is what’s on the side of you and what’s standing in front of you, etc.’ And this morning when Will sees the Sanctuary for the first time, it has to be an ‘Oh, God’ moment, that just keeps getting bigger. I said to Robin, ‘I understand what I’m asking you to do, to keep being more and more amazed by this whole thing. At the same time I realize your eyebrows only go up so far, so just do your best,’” chuckles the director.

As Wood mentioned, Sanctuary originally began life on the Internet and premiered last year as a series of eight 15-minute webisodes, which constituted a two-hour pilot. The show was later picked up for TV by The SCI FI Channel and debuts on October 3rd. Created by former Stargate SG-1 writer/producer Damian Kindler, Sanctuary tells the story of Dr. Helen Magnus, a brilliant scientist and immortal beauty who is carrying on her father’s (Dr. Anthony Magnus) work to seek out, study and help abnormals (creatures connected to the evolution of humankind and that roam the Earth). Based in a top secret and massive research facility called Sanctuary, Helen is assisted by her new protégé, Dr. Will Zimmerman, and her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup). These characters as well as others are introduced in the show’s pilot episode, "Sanctuary for All", which has been re-shot for TV.

“The Sanctuary web pilot that we made was an experiment to see how quickly and how well we could get something on the Internet in a very limited amount of time and with limited resources,” recalls Wood. “With it, we made any mistakes that we needed to make and learned from them. The look for the TV pilot will be quite different in that we have a much larger VFX team with us now, so we can throw much more at them. We previously had an in-house team doing our VFX and they did an incredible job. That team, however, would have needed to expand by at least four times in order to do what we’re doing now with the program.

“So along came Lee and Lisa Wilson and they assembled a team that will be able to handle this. They’re the ones who last year worked on the six-hour SCI FI Channel miniseries Tin Man and in a relatively short period of time turned out some stunning results. We’re now taking what they learned on Tin Man and, again, what we learned on the original Sanctuary pilot and combining it all. Imagine what the outcome will be. If you liked Tin Man and the first Sanctuary pilot, just squish them together into one big sandwich and take a bite out of that,” smiles the director. “You’re going to get an amazing ‘taste.’”

The two-hour "Sanctuary for All" is part of the show’s 13-episode first season. According to Wood, the year one story arc will contribute not only to character development but also the ongoing Sanctuary mythology. “Our story is going to start out very small with Will coming onto the team,” he notes. “As he begins to learn about the resources Magnus has at her disposal and what the Sanctuary is, Will is going to discover, along with the audience, that there are additional Sanctuaries around the world.

“He’s also going to learn that there are more of these monsters running about than anybody could ever imagine. These abnormals exist everywhere and are a part of the fabric of our world. There are controlling factors in their lives that are not necessarily present in the lives of human beings, and we human beings don’t know that. We’re going to discover what two of these controlling factors are as well as a huge amount of information as to where Magnus came from and why that’s important to the world.”

As season one of Sanctuary unfolds, our heroes are going to end up traveling around the world, from the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayans, to catacombs beneath Rome, and even the waters of the Bermuda Triangle. All these locales and many more are courtesy of green screen, the benefits of which have not been lost on Wood.

“When you’re filming on a practical set, you can never think of doing, for example, a shot where a man is standing sixty stories up on a steal girder having a conversation with a woman, when one of them turns and flies away. And the whole thing is shot from above looking down at them with sixty stories of a city below you,” muses the director. “You can’t really do that on a practical set, but we can do it standing on the floor of our studio.

“One of the cool things about green screen is that the physical limitations of filming are no longer there,” continues Wood. “There’s a scene in our two-hour opener that begins in an interrogation room and we’re looking at a prisoner. We then turn away and see a reflection of him in these one-way mirrors. The camera then starts to push towards the mirrors and goes ‘through’ them to the other side where two people are talking and looking back at the prisoner in the other room.

“So walls are permeable now, so are floors, ceilings, even time and distance. You can follow someone out a doorway and they can be in a car in the very next shot. However, we’re not doing a lot of trick shots like that. What we’re doing is opening up this world of ours. When you talk about doing smaller shows in a single room, well, our single room could be 75 feet high and long. Just think if we played out an entire episode in our Sanctuary library. You’re talking about a room that’s 100 feet long with four floors to it, and it’s all done in the studio.

“That’s the difference for me between working on a practical set and one with a green screen. In the years I’ve been doing sci-fi on standing sets I’ve been limited to thinking about how I’m going to film inside those sets. Now I no longer have to worry about that. I can shoot wherever I want, within reason, of course. We sat down earlier today to talk about how we’re going to shoot a plane crash involving our heroes and then have a helicopter go in and find them. It was like, ‘Okay, we can do that. It’s not that hard,’ and that’s pretty neat.”

Wood brings 20 years of directing experience to Sanctuary, with much of that time spent working on Stargate SG-1 and then Stargate Atlantis where he served as a producer as well. He also directed the recently-released Continuum, the second of two made-for-DVD SG-1 films. On Sanctuary he shares executive producing/show runner duties with Damian Kindler, Amanda Tapping, and Sam Egan. It is a responsibility he does not take lightly.

“I have a much greater appreciation for what the show runners on SG-1 and Atlantis did,” says Wood. “For 11 years I watched what was happening from a director’s standpoint and learned a massive amount from Brad Wright and Robert Cooper as well as John Smith, who showed me how to run a TV show, but it was all happening through osmosis. I didn’t know how much I actually knew until I got into the big chair on Sanctuary and had to make some of the same decisions myself.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says with a smile, “coupled with the fact that I’m trying to direct and juggle a whole bunch of other things at the same time. The show running/corporate end of things becomes rather intrusive in that [directing] process. As a result you have to be certain that you’re doing both jobs really well, because if not it’ll show up onscreen if you’re failing either one of them. So you can’t switch hats; you have to wear one on top of the other, and it’s tougher than it looks. At the same time it can be incredibly rewarding, and that’s what I’m finding with Sanctuary.”

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